Sunday, October 4, 2015

Adventure in Learning about our Hmong neighbors

Saint Paul has the largest Hmong population than any other city in the United States. I thought I knew about Hmong culture until I went to the exhibit today at the Minnesota History Center. This exhibit marks the 40th anniversary of the Hmong arrival to Minnesota.

Today my older daughter, who lives in a group home, had an appointment for a haircut. However about 2 hours before the appointment her hairdresser called and said her appointments today were running behind and she asked if we could come next week. So we decided to have lunch together and then go to the History Center. Below is the beautiful autumn view that greeted us.

In the exhibit we found a chronology of the Hmong people and their culture. The Hmong culture goes back at least 6000 years.

According to the information I found, the Hmong, then located in what is present day southern China, were the first farmers of rice in the entire world, and then obviously the growth of rice spread into many places.

During the above interval of time, the Hmong as well as other ethnic minorities were forced about China. The Hmong relocated primarily into what is present day Laos.

 Beginning with the era above the next 30+ years were a time of constant warfare for the Hmong. The time most in the world call World War II was called the Japanese War by the Hmong. Most fought in Laos on the side of the France, the country which at that time was in control of what is present day Laos. When World War II was over the area moved into what is called the IndoChina War. When France left this area, the governments of present day Laos and Viet Nam were leaning to Communism.

Much to my amazement I learned that in the early 1960s the CIA established a huge military base in present day Laos and it was staffed primarily by Hmong soldiers and staff. This is part of what is called the Secret War, and was authorized by President Kennedy as a way to fight back against Communist governments. Indeed as far as I'm concerned, it was a Secret War.

 Below is a model. I am sorry that the picture is not very good. There was no way I could avoid the reflection of the overhead lights.

 It was called Long Cheng. The exhibit notes said it was also known by a code name, Lima Site. By 1966 it was one of very largest air bases in the world.

Surrounding this exhibit area are objects associated with Hmong military service. Below, for example, is a beret.

I have known for some time that the Hmong fought on the side the U.S. during the Viet Nam war, but had no idea that the Hmong involvement with the U.S. government went back as far as the early 1960s and in Laos besides

When the U.S. left South Asia the Hmong were in a bad position with the assuming Communist governments in Laos and Viet Nam and needed to flee the area. Their status obviously met the qualification of refugee in U.S law.

But first came the paperwork. The display below shows the type of documents that had to be completed.

The paper hurdle is not a joke. The last Hmong refugees arrived somewhat more than 5 years ago. This population had lived in a nonofficial refugee camp in Thailand. For this population, anyone less than 25 years old had lived their whole life in this nonofficial refugee camp. Minnesota was expecting 5000 to arrive. A doctor who would be in charge initially of their health care went to the camp in Thailand and came home with this story: She met a man who had pervasive bladder cancer and was in extreme pain. He was refusing to take any medications for his severe pain. Why? He was afraid that if he tested positive for using a drug that his entire family would be prevented from leaving the camp for Minnesota.

The Hmong used oral language to keep their culture alive, along with what are called story cloths. The exhibit has a display of one that is very large.

I took the above photo at an angle trying to avoid reflections from the overhead lights.

Below are some photos that show details from this story cloth

 I was fascinated with the part of the story cloth for I have had university students tell me they remember hanging on to their parents' backs as they swam across the Mekong River to safety.

The photo above shows that without regard to their location the Hmong are talented farmers.

Since I spend much time teaching English I, of course, had to make note of this part of the story cloth.

And this portion of the story cloth makes note that people did leave

The exhibit explains that each person who was leaving a refugee camp was given a small plastic box in which to put things they wished to bring with them to the United States. These varied from the T-shirt shown below

to a very beautiful silver necklace.

Why did so many come to Minnesota? The exhibit says it because Minnesota has very effective social service agencies to arriving people. But we must recognize Hmong also moved to Australia, Argentina, Canada, France, French Guiana, and Germany

What did the Hmong think of Minnesota? On one sign at the exhibit I found this statement: St Paul could have been the moon. The language, the climate, the plants, the money, the values, the technology the house -- nothing made sense.

There were many bumps in the road. For example, housing was difficult to find because many landlords required a two year rental history. The arriving Hmong wondered how they could do this when they had been living in a refugee camp. Rules such as this had to modified.

Part of the exhibit moved us too to a Home exhibit. The History Center has an exhibit about a house at 402 Hopkins that has been the home for succeeding groups of immigrants and refugees. First were Germans, then Italians, and then Hmong in this house.  The Hmong living room proved to be very simple in its design.

 It includes a Hmong altar.

Signage by the altar explained the symbol of the articles found on it. For example, an egg is a symbol of new life, a symbol an egg occupies in many culture.

And on one wall is the example of a beautiful tapestry.

Now about 40% of the students in the Saint Paul schools are Hmong kids. Sometimes, for example when shopping in Target, I will hear a child say "Mom" with the exact same intonation that my kids used when they were little.

Hmong have moved into all kinds of professions and also into elected positions with local and state government.

 Because this culture was highly based on agriculture, many have moved into small farming. These farms are now a major source of the products that move into Farmers' Markets during the spring, summer, and fall.

The ending of the exhibit has bowls of plastic vegetables and fruits labeled with bar codes. When one places the bar code on the reader a nearby monitor plays a video that shows how the fruit or vegetable is used in Hmong cooking.

This is a great exhibit. I do hope that anyone close to Minnesota comes by to see this exhibit. It shows what happens when a new population comes to a place -- how things are the same or different after 40 years!

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